NEW YORK — Professional soccer is making its long-awaited return to San Diego County.

The North American Soccer League announced Monday that San Diego County is the league’s newest expansion market.

The club will make its league debut next spring.

The franchise group is backed by an ownership group led by four global soccer stars: Demba Ba, Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sow.

The players have partnered with local business executives to bring professional soccer back to an area that is home to 3.3 million people and more than 50,000 youth players.

Bob Watkins, a longtime San Diegan and successful businessman, will serve as the club’s president.

“It’s an absolute honor to bring professional soccer to San Diego County,” said Watkins, who recently secured the league’s approval of the expansion club. “The international soccer stars driving this effort give us an excellent foundation from which to build. We will be an exciting club to watch – you can count on that. We intend to develop local talent, helping young children realize their dreams of playing professional soccer, and we intend to help San Diego become a soccer capital known around the world.”

With Ba, Hazard, Cabaye, and Sow headlining the ownership group, the club will have a deep connection to the global game. Ba and Sow were both born in France, but represent Senegal at the international level. Ba, who plays for Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League, has been a prolific goalscorer in France, Germany, England and Turkey.

“Success is our goal – with the club, with the community, with everything that we do,” Ba said. “One of our goals is to sign players who have a strong passion for the game, who are competitive and love to win. All my life as a football player, I lived with competition and competition is going to be good for us and for San Diego. I look forward to competing against our fellow California clubs and the rest of the NASL, as well as MLS clubs in the U.S. Open Cup. It is going to be up to us to be the best.”

Hazard, regarded as one of the world’s most talented players, plays for Premier League side Chelsea FC, where he and Ba were once teammates. The Belgian international star was named 2015 Premier League player of the season.

“San Diego is a beautiful place and the love and passion that the people have for soccer made this an easy choice for us,” Hazard said. “My friends and I are honored to turn this dream into a reality and we can’t wait to get started and win some games.”

Cabaye plays professionally in England with Crystal Palace FC. A member of the French national team, Cabaye has played for well-known clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle United. “It’s unbelievable to be part of this project, and I just want to do my best for the club and for San Diego,” he said.

Sow just finished another season with Turkish giant Fenerbahçe S.K., on loan from Dubai-based side Al Ahli. “My main goal will be to share my knowledge and experience with the club,” Sow said.

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at